Robert Donat

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Robert Donat
Donat in 1939
Born Friedrich Robert Donat
(1905-03-18)18 March 1905
Withington, Manchester, Lancashire, England
Died 9 June 1958(1958-06-09) (aged 53)
London, England
Occupation Actor
Years active 1924–1958
Spouse(s) Ella Annesley Voysey (1929–1946)
Renée Asherson (1953–1958)

Friedrich Robert Donat (18 March 1905 – 9 June 1958) was an English film and stage actor.[1] He is best remembered for his roles in Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps (1935) and Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939), winning for the latter the Academy Award for Best Actor.

Donat was also a successful stage actor.

Early life and career

Donat was born in Withington, Manchester, the fourth and youngest son of Ernst Emil Donat, a civil engineer of German origin from Prussian Poland, and his wife, Rose Alice Green.[2] He was of English, Polish, German and French descent and was educated at Manchester's Central High School for Boys. He took elocution lessons with James Bernard.

Donat made his first stage appearance in 1921 at age 16 with Henry Baynton's company at the Prince of Wales Theatre, Birmingham, playing Lucius in Julius Caesar. His break came in 1924 when he joined the company of Shakespearean actor Sir Frank Benson, where he stayed for four years.[3] Donat married Ella Annesley Voysey (1903–1994) in 1929; the couple had three children together but divorced in 1946.


In his book, The Age of the Dream Palace, Jeffrey Richards wrote that Donat was “The British cinema's one undisputed romantic leading man in the 1930s”.[4] "The image he projected was that of the romantic idealist, often with a dash of the gentleman adventurer."[5] Initially, around 1930 and 1931, he was known as "screen test" Donat in the industry because of his many unsuccessful auditions for film producers.[6]

MGM's producer Irving Thalberg spotted him on the London stage in Precious Bane, and Donat was offered a part in the American studio's Smilin' Through (1932). He rejected this offer.[5]

Alexander Korda

Instead, Donat made his film debut in a quota quickie Men of Tomorrow (1932) for Alexander Korda's London Films. An abysmal screen test for Korda had ended with Donat's laughter.[7] Reputedly, Korda in response exclaimed: "That's the most natural laugh I have ever heard in my life. What acting! Put him under contract immediately."[6]

Korda cast Donat in the lead in That Night in London (1932) and he had a key role in Cash (1933).

Donat's first great screen success came in his fourth film. This was as Thomas Culpeper in The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) for the same producer.[8] The film was an enormous success around the world.

The Count of Monte Cristo and The 39 Steps

Robert Donat and Elissa Landi in The Count of Monte Cristo (1934)

Korda loaned him to Edward Small for the only film Donat made in Hollywood, The Count of Monte Cristo (1934).[9]

Poster for The 39 Steps (1935)

He did not care for the film colony and, despite being offered the lead role in Captain Blood (1935),[10] returned to Britain to begin work on Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps (1935) opposite Madeleine Carroll.[10] His performance was well-received: "Mr. Donat, who has never been very well served in the cinema until now, suddenly blossoms out into a romantic comedian of no mean order", wrote the film critic C. A. Lejeune in The Observer at the time of the film's release. Lejeune observed that he possessed "an easy confident humour that has always been regarded as the perquisite of the American male star. For the first time on our screen we have the British equivalent of a Clark Gable or a Ronald Colman, playing in a purely national idiom. Mr. Donat, himself, I fancy, is hardly conscious of it, which is all to the good."[11] Hitchcock wanted Donat for the role of the Detective in Sabotage (1936), but this time Korda refused to release him.[12]

In 1936 Donat took on the management of the Queen's Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue where he produced Red Night by J. L. Hodson.[2]

He made two further films under his contract with Korda, The Ghost Goes West (1935), and Knight Without Armour (1937). Korda became committed to the latter project because of Donat's indecision. Madeleine Carroll had read the James Hilton novel while shooting The 39 Steps, and had persuaded Donat that it could be a good second film for them to star in together. Donat acquired the rights and passed them on to Korda, although by now Carroll was unavailable.[13] His eventual co-star, Marlene Dietrich, was the source of much attention when she arrived in Britain, in which Donat was involved, and this was enough for him to suffer a nervous collapse a few days into the shooting schedule. Donat entered a nursing home.[13] The production delay caused by Donat's asthma led to talk of replacing him. Dietrich, contracted by Korda for $450,000, threatened to leave the project if this happened, and production was halted for two months, until Donat was able to return to work.[14]

MGM British

Promotional photograph of Greer Garson and Robert Donat in Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939)

In 1938, Donat signed a contract with MGM British for £150,000 with a commitment to making six films.[15][16] In The Citadel (1938), he played Andrew Manson, a newly qualified Scottish doctor, a role for which he received his first Best Actor Oscar nomination.

Donat is best remembered for his role as the school master in Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939). Australian film critic Brian McFarlane writes: "Class-ridden and sentimental perhaps, it remains extraordinarily touching in his Oscar-winning performance, and it ushers in the Donat of the postwar years."[17] His rivals for the Best Actor Award were Clark Gable for Gone with the Wind, Laurence Olivier for Wuthering Heights, James Stewart for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Mickey Rooney for Babes in Arms.

He was a major theatre star. His stage career included performances in Shaw's The Devil's Disciple (1938) and Captain Shotover in a new staging of Heartbreak House (1942). With The Cure for Love (1945) by Walter Greenwood, one of the stage productions he directed, he began his professional association with Renée Asherson, later his second wife.[18] This continued with a production of Much Ado About Nothing (1946) with the couple playing Benedict and Beatrice.

Donat lobbied hard for two film roles: he was cast in neither. He wanted to play the Chorus in Olivier's Henry V, but the role went to Leslie Banks, and he longed desperately to be cast against type as Bill Sikes in David Lean's Oliver Twist (1948), but Lean thought him wrong for the part and cast Robert Newton instead.

The MGM British contract ended with litigation, and he made only two more films for the company, The Adventures of Tartu (1943), with Valerie Hobson and Perfect Strangers (1945) with Deborah Kerr.

Later life and career

Donat suffered from chronic asthma, which affected his career and limited him to appearing in only 20 films.[19] Donat and Asherson reprised their stage roles in the film version of The Cure for Love (1949). His only film as director, its production was affected by his ill health.[18][20] The film's soundtrack had to be re-recorded after shooting was completed because Donat's asthma had severely affected his voice.[21] Modestly received by a reviewer in the Monthly Film Bulletin, and described as "pedestrian" by Philip French in 2009, it was a hit in the North. In this film, Donat used his natural Mancunian accent, which his early elocution lessons had attempted to completely suppress.[22][23] Donat married Asherson, his second wife, in 1953. They later separated, but might have reconciled.[20]

He was cast as Thomas Becket in T.S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral in Robert Helpmann's production at the Old Vic Theatre in 1952, but although his return to stage was well received, his illness forced him to withdraw during the run.[21] The same reason also caused him to drop out of Hobson's Choice (1954). Scheduled to play Willy Mossop, he was replaced by John Mills.[24] Author David Shipman speculates that Donat's asthma may have been psychosomatic: "His tragedy was that the promise of his early years was never fulfilled and that he was haunted by agonies of doubt and disappointment (which probably were the cause of his chronic asthma)."[25] David Thomson also suggested this explanation,[26] and Donat himself thought that his illness had a 90% basis in his psychology.[4] In a 1980 interview with Barry Norman, his first wife Ella Annesley Voysey (by then known as Ella Hall),[27] said that Donat's asthma was a psychosomatic response to the birth of their daughter. According to her: "Robert was full of fear."[28] Lease of Life (1954), made by Ealing Studios, was his penultimate film in which Donat plays a Vicar who discovers that he has a terminal illness.[21]

Donat's final role was the mandarin Yang Cheng in The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958). His last spoken words in this film, an emotional soliloquy in which he confesses his conversion reducing Ingrid Bergman as the missionary to tears, were the prophetic, "We shall not see each other again, I think. Farewell." Several months after his death, Donat was nominated for his first Golden Globe and received a National Board of Review Special Citation for his performance.

Death and legacy

Donat died in London on 9 June 1958 at age 53. Regarding Donat’s death, biographer Kenneth Barrow wrote the actor had “...a brain tumour the size of a duck egg and cerebral thrombosis was certified as the primary cause of death."[29]

Donat has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for motion pictures at 6420 Hollywood Blvd. A blue plaque commemorates Donat at 8 Meadway in Hampstead Garden Suburb.[30] His place of birth at 42 Everett Road in Withington is also commemorated by a similar plaque.[31] Donat’s son, John Donat, (1933–2004), was an architectural photographer,[32] and actors Peter Donat and Richard Donat are his nephews.


Year Title Role Notes
1932 Men of Tomorrow Julian Angell
1932 That Night in London Dick Warren
1933 Cash Paul Martin
1933 The Private Life of Henry VIII Thomas Culpeper
1934 The Count of Monte Cristo Edmond Dantès, the eponymous Count
1935 The 39 Steps Richard Hannay
1936 The Ghost Goes West Murdoch Glourie/Donald Glourie
1937 Knight Without Armour A. J. Fothergill
1938 The Citadel Dr. Andrew Manson Nominated — Academy Award for Best Actor
1939 Goodbye, Mr. Chips Mr. Chips Academy Award for Best Actor
Nominated — New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actor (3rd place)
1942 The Young Mr Pitt William Pitt / The Earl of Chatham
1943 The Adventures of Tartu Captain Terence Stevenson / Jan Tartu released in the United States as Sabotage Agent
1943 The New Lot Actor uncredited
1945 Perfect Strangers Robert Wilson released in the United States as Vacation From Marriage
1947 Captain Boycott Charles Stewart Parnell
1948 The Winslow Boy Sir Robert Morton
1950 The Cure for Love Sergeant Jack Hardacre
1951 The Magic Box William Friese-Greene, "the forgotten inventor of movies"
1954 Lease of Life Rev. William Thorne Nominated — BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role
1958 The Inn of the Sixth Happiness The Mandarin of Yang Cheng National Board of Review Special Citation
Nominated — Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama
(both recognitions were posthumous)


  1. ^ Obituary Variety, 11 June 1958.
  2. ^ a b Ivor Brown and K.D Reynolds "Donat, (Frederick) Robert", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004
  3. ^ [1] Archived 29 September 2011 at the Wayback Machine. Donat Family Letters – John Rylands University Library
  4. ^ a b Jeffrey Richards The Age of the Dream Palace: Cinema and Society in 1930s Britain, London: I.B Tauris, 2010 [1984], p.225
  5. ^ a b Richards, p.226
  6. ^ a b "Mr. Donat Captures Hollywood", The Milwaukee Journal, 9 July 1939, p.26
  7. ^ Charles Drazin Korda: Britain's Movie Mogul, London: I.B. Tauris, 2011, p.90
  8. ^ "Notes on Films". The Sunday Herald. Sydney. 23 July 1950. p. 6 Supplement: Features. Retrieved 7 July 2012 – via National Library of Australia. 
  9. ^ Peter Hopkinson Screen of Change, London: UKA Press, 2008, p.84
  10. ^ a b "The Count of Monte Cristo (1934)", TCM Film Article
  11. ^ Mark Glancy The 39 Steps, London & New York: I.B. Tauris, 2003, p.91
  12. ^ Alfred Hitchcock and François Truffaut Hitchcock, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1985, p.109
  13. ^ a b Drazin, p.170-71
  14. ^ Charlotte Chandler Marlene: Marlene Dietrich, A Personal Biography, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011, p.120
  15. ^ H. Mark Glancy When Hollywood Loved Britain: The Hollywood 'British' Film 1939–1945, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999, p.82
  16. ^ Joan Littlefield "Film Producers Have Learned How Brains Can Make Winners: Britain On The Screen", The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, 8 June 1938, p.4
  17. ^ Brian McFarlane "Donat, Robert (1905–1958)", BFI screenonline reprinted from McFarlane (ed.) Encyclopedia of British Cinema, London: Methuen/BFI, 2003, p.183
  18. ^ a b Obituary: Renée Asherson, Daily Telegraph, 4 November 2014. Retrieved 4 November 2014
  19. ^ "illness May Silence Donat's Golden Voice". The Sunday Herald. Sydney. 2 August 1953. p. 14. Retrieved 7 July 2012 – via National Library of Australia. 
  20. ^ a b Simon Farquhar "Renée Asherson: Actress renowned for her grace and beauty", The Independent, 6 November 2014
  21. ^ a b c "Mr. Donat has a new Lease of Life" Sydney Morning Herald, 28 October 1954. Retrieved 27 July 2010
  22. ^ Michael Brooke "Cure For Love, The (1949)", BFI screenonline
  23. ^ Philip French "Philip French's screen legends, No 54: Robert Donat 1905–1958", The Observer, 19 April 2009
  24. ^ Obituary: Sir John Mills, Daily Telegraph, 25 April 2005
  25. ^ David Shipman The Great Movie Stars: The Golden Years, London: Macdonald, 1989, p.176
  26. ^ David Thomson The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, London: Little, Brown, 2002, p.241
  27. ^ "The British Greats: 2, Robert Donat", BBC Genome, 6 August 1980 from Radio Times Issue 2960, 31 July 1980, p.50
  28. ^ reprinted in The Listener, vol.104, p.241
  29. ^ Barrow, Kenneth (1985). Mr Chips: The Life of Robert Donat, London: Methuen, p. 191. ISBN 0-413-58070-9.
  30. ^ "DONAT, ROBERT (1905–1958)". English Heritage. Retrieved 5 August 2012. 
  31. ^ "Hello Mr Chips – plaque marks home of Oscar winner Robert Donat". MEN Media. Retrieved 7 August 2013. 
  32. ^

External links

  • Robert Donat on IMDb
  • Robert Donat at the BFI's Screenonline
  • Robert Donat archive at the University of Bristol Theatre Collection- University of Bristol
  • Robert Donat Papers, John Rylands Library, University of Manchester
  • Photographs and literature
  • Robert Donat Blog
  • The Sire de Maletroit's Door starring Robert Donat on Theatre Royal: 1 November 1953.
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